In an accomplished fiction debut, Chocolat, English author Joanne Harris offers an intriguing modern day morality tale laced with a soupcon of sorcery. The combatants in this deliciously different take on the eons old tug-of-war between good and evil are a young woman, the daughter of a self-proclaimed witch, and a platitudinous curate.
As she struggles to find her place in the world and he equivocates to protect dusty tradition, they vie for the hearts and loyalties of some 200 French villagers, inhabitants of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, "no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux."
Ms. Harris displays an original voice in perfect pitch as she depicts the cowed, affection starved townspeople. Her meticulous character imagery is telling: Francis Reynaud, the guilt-ridden parish cure' with his cold eyes and "the measuring, feline look of one who is uncertain of his territory;" the 81-year-old Armande Voizin "with a smile that worked her apple-doll face into a million wrinkles;" and the venal wife-beater, Muscat, who struts "stiff-legged like a dog scenting a fight."
Vianne Rocher and her six-year-old daughter are wanderers. They arrive in Lansquenet on Shrove Tuesday, where their appearance is greeted with veiled curiosity by villagers who "have learned the art of observation without eye contact." Battle lines are drawn when Vianne opens La Celeste Praline, a gaily decorated confectioner's shop on the town square, directly across from the austere St. Jerome's church overseen by Pere Reynaud.
It is Lent, the priest has decreed abstinence, deprivation. Yet, Vianne's shop is a "red-and-gold confection," her window a proliferation of truffles, pralines, Venus's nipples, candied fruits, hazelnut clusters, candied rose petals, all there to tempt Reynaud's parishioners. He sees it as a disgrace, a degradation of the faith, and eventually preaches against Vianne from his pulpit.
When a band of gypsies moor their colorful houseboats at the village's small harbor, the prelate asks them to leave. Vianne welcomes them, further infuriating Reynaud. Weakened by his self-imposed Lenten fasts, he denies his hunger and watches her shop with "loathing and fascination" as he begins plotting to rid Lansquenet of what he believes is her evil influence.
One of Vianne's staunchest allies is a kindred spirit, the elderly Armande, the village's oldest inhabitant who delights in reminding Reynaud "of things best forgotten," and dares to invite the gypsies to remain as her guests. At times fearful of the consequences, Vianne turns to her mother's cards, seeking an answer in augury. Nonetheless, she stands her ground, even making plans for a "Grand Festival Du Chocolat" on Easter Sunday. It would be a celebration with games in the square and a riot of sweets in the shop. But Reynaud sees it as an affront, an excess, he would have "The egg, the hare, still living symbols of the tenacious roots of paganism exposed for what they are."
Wisely compressing her provocative narrative to the days between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Monday, the author uses impeccable pacing in leading to Reynaud's final assault, an effort to destroy the festival and Vianne along with it.
A surprising yet fitting denouement caps this deftly told tale of lust, greed and love. Francophiles will be drawn to the evocative descriptions of daily village life, while gourmands revel in the mouth-watering descriptions of chocolate preparation. All will relish the skillful pen of Joanne Harris. Chocolat is to be savored.